Nick Castellanos Is Mashing Again

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When I last checked in on Nick Castellanos, he was not in a good place. Though he was playing in a World Series with the Phillies, the team with which he signed a five-year, $100 million contract after the lockout ended in March, his season had been a disappointment, and aside from the occasional big hit here and highlight-reel catch there — the latter class of which had seemed particularly unlikely given his defensive metrics — his postseason had been bleak as well, right down to his making the final out in Games 5 and 6 of the World Series as the Phillies fell to the Astros. Fortunately, after turning the page on 2022, Castellanos has reemerged as one of the Phillies’ most productive hitters.

When the Phillies signed Castellanos, he was coming off the best season of his career, having made his first All-Star team while setting across-the-board career highs with a .309/.362/.576 line, 34 homers, a 139 wRC+, and 3.6 WAR. He had opted out following the second year of a four-year, $64 million deal with the Reds, but despite notable interest from multiple teams including the Padres and Marlins, he didn’t secure a deal before the lockout began in early December. Once he did finally agree to terms with the Phillies, eight days after the lockout ended, he felt as though he had to rush into the season, adjusting to a new team, new city, new fanbase, and new media… and with a new child on the way. Soon, Bryce Harper’s elbow injury forced Castellanos to play right field on a regular basis instead of DHing a significant amount of the time as initially planned.

Things did not go well. Castellanos matched his career-worst 94 wRC+ via a .263/.305/.389 line, set career lows with a 5.2% walk rate and 6.6% barrel rate, and homered just 13 times. He was dreadful afield (-10 RAA, -8 DRS, -7.3 UZR) as well, and while his -0.8 WAR didn’t make him the majors’ least valuable position player, none of the 31 others with WARs that low or lower — including future Hall of Famers Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto — had just set sail on a $100 million contract. Adding further insult, in the postseason, Castellanos hit .185/.232/.246 in 69 plate appearances. Not even a few memorable diving catches could offset that.

As he recently told Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein, Castellanos began the offseason by regrouping with wife Jess, confronting the anxieties he’d dealt with all season regarding his separation from his family (the couple lives in suburban New Jersey with their young son, while Castellanos’ son from his first marriage lives in Miami), and conceding his own lack of presence:

“There wasn’t balance to any of that during the year, and I could feel that. So that would stress me out, and everything on the baseball field is way harder to do when you’re stressed out.” When he was physically at home, he was mentally at the ballpark. When he was physically at the ballpark, he was mentally at home. He could never relax.

In the spring, the 31-year-old Castellanos worked with hitting coach Kevin Long, making adjustments to move closer to the pitcher and the plate in an effort to attack sliders a bit earlier and resist chasing low-and-away breaking balls. He still turned up on Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS-driven list of bust candidates, and the Phillies’ right field situation made my list of the biggest remaining holes on National League contenders.

While it’s far too early to say that he’s having the last laugh, Castellanos is hitting a whole lot more like the player the Phillies thought they were getting: .315/.362/.498 with eight homers and a 132 wRC+, numbers that represent career highs in batting average and on-base percentage as well as his second-highest wRC+. Mind you, it hasn’t been the smoothest ride to get to this point. Castellanos got off to a hot start, batting .313/.364/.509 (136 wRC+) in April, but sank to .265/.303/.392 (92 wRC+) in May. He’s been red-hot in June (.442/.479/.721, 221 wRC+), admittedly while facing the Nationals, Tigers, and Dodgers, three teams whose staff ERAs rank among the majors’ bottom 10. Though he went a modest 3-for-12 against the Dodgers this past weekend, his fifth-inning RBI double off Michael Grove provided the go-ahead run in Friday night’s 5-4 win, and his seventh-inning two-run homer off Nick Robertson took the starch out of Los Angeles’ comeback attempt in Sunday’s 7-3 win, helping Philadelphia capture its third series in a row. He followed by going 2-for-4 with a walk against Arizona in a 9-8 loss on Monday night.

Digging into the numbers, Castellanos has gotten a bit more selective at the plate, but the change is hardly radical, at least if we’re going by his plate discipline stats. He’s chasing 39.7% of pitches outside the zone, down from last year’s career-high 43.6% but above his career mark of 38%. His overall swing rate of 54.7% is down from last year’s career high of 57% as well. Even so, he has a career-high 17.8% swinging strike rate (up nearly one point from last year) and a career-low 67.3% contact rate (down nearly three points from last year). Though his walk rate has improved from 5.2% to 7.2%, his strikeout rate has climbed from 23.3% to 24.4%. Where the difference in Castellanos’ selectivity shows up more is in a breakdown of his Statcast Swing/Take runs:

Nick Castellanos Swing/Take Runs
Season Heart Sw Heart Take Heart Shadow Sw Shadow Take Shadow Chase Waste
2019 5 -6 -1 2 0 2 8 18
2020 -2 -4 -6 -3 -2 -5 9 1
2021 25 -4 21 -5 0 -5 9 33
2022 4 -5 -1 -19 -2 -20 10 -6
2023 10 -2 8 2 0 2 2 14
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Castellanos is doing a much better job of making swing decisions on balls in the Shadow zone — defined as 3.3 inches in either direction of the rulebook strike zone. When he made contact last year with such pitches, he hit .237 with a .316 slugging percentage, for a .251 wOBA; Statcast valued that at 19 runs below average, while he was an additional two runs below average on the balls he took in that area (with rounding, the sum of those is -20, not -21). This time around, he’s hitting .293 and slugging .504, for a .353 wOBA on balls in the Shadow zone, and a Stacast value of two runs — a massive improvement. He’s also doing a much better job than last year when it comes to avoiding swinging at Waste pitches, those that are nowhere near the zone, and is getting better contact when he swings at pitches in the Heart zone:

Nick Castellanos Heart and Shadow Zones
2021 213 23 .431 .387 .885 .807 .541 .496 94.4
2022 196 10 .359 .318 .590 .579 .405 .382 92.6
2023 96 1 .406 .396 .615 .654 .437 .447 93.5
2021 252 11 .267 .261 .461 .420 .313 .300 88.5
2022 261 3 .237 .237 .316 .333 .251 .259 84.7
2023 132 7 .293 .242 .504 .408 .353 .303 87.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Castellanos’ overall quality of contact has rebounded, even as the two trends more or less seem to be offsetting each other:

Nick Castellanos Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% FB% Pull% BBE EV Barrel% HardHit%
2019 0.95 37.7% 39.6% 40.8% 475 89.0 10.1% 41.3%
2020 0.88 34.7% 39.3% 32.0% 150 91.0 16.0% 46.0%
2021 1.05 37.5% 35.8% 39.4% 416 89.8 10.6% 46.9%
2022 1.10 41.9% 38.1% 37.4% 396 87.5 6.6% 34.6%
2023 1.34 43.5% 32.5% 45.0% 191 89.7 11.0% 45.5%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Castellanos’ groundball rate is higher than in any season except his 2013 rookie campaign; he hadn’t been above 40% since until last year. He generally hasn’t been all that productive on grounders given his declining speed (he’s in the 46th percentile this year, down from the 64th just two years ago), but this year he’s hitting .301 and slugging .349 on grounders, up from .259 AVG/.265 SLG last year and .256/.276 in 2021. Meanwhile, his pull rate is an eyelash ahead of his career-high 44.9%, set in 2018. He’s hitting .453 and slugging .779 on such balls, a bit more impactful than last year (.446/.635) and more in line with 2021 (.411/.785) — with those balls occupying a larger footprint; with 86 pulled batted balls thus far, he’s already more than halfway to his 2021 total of 164.

As for Castellanos’ actual adjustments at the plate, these eyes don’t actually see much difference in where he’s standing relative to the plate when I compare center field camera shots from Citizens Bank Park from last fall to this season, but that’s hard to spot from a standard broadcast, without overhead shots. He has spoken of letting the ball travel and making contact deeper in the strike zone. While he’s still struggling to resist the low-and-away breaking pitches, his Statcast numbers on sliders are night and day relative to last year, and likewise, he is annihilating fastballs:

Nick Castellanos vs. Pitch Types, 2021–23
Pitch Season Runs % PA AVG SLG wOBA Whiff% HH%
4-Seam 2021 20 28.5% 156 .357 .776 .488 17.1% 54.4%
4-Seam 2022 5 26.6% 131 .265 .460 .357 25.7% 57.1%
4-Seam 2023 12 25.0% 67 .431 .638 .507 18.9% 62.2%
Sinker 2021 2 15.6% 104 .389 .558 .430 10.6% 57.0%
Sinker 2022 2 14.4% 88 .317 .402 .356 17.4% 45.7%
Sinker 2023 2 15.2% 40 .378 .432 .408 14.1% 46.9%
Curve 2021 3 12.6% 72 .239 .537 .353 43.6% 32.7%
Curve 2022 -4 9.6% 54 .231 .269 .243 36.4% 16.7%
Curve 2023 -6 7.4% 18 .000 .000 .039 43.8% 10.0%
Slider 2021 0 23.3% 141 .228 .441 .321 44.6% 44.0%
Slider 2022 -6 31.7% 182 .251 .413 .301 39.4% 25.4%
Slider 2023 8 24.9% 68 .328 .701 .448 46.9% 40.9%
Changeup 2021 6 14.2% 72 .294 .529 .381 42.1% 37.3%
Changeup 2022 -3 10.9% 64 .213 .230 .235 40.3% 26.1%
Changeup 2023 1 12.8% 43 .225 .300 .287 31.3% 31.4%

That’s a 14-run turnaround on sliders alone; he’s nearly a win and a half better in that department, though as you can see, he has yet to get a hit on a curveball this year. Comparing his numbers on low-and-away sliders (those in Gameday zone 14), he hit and slugged .079 against the 40 of them with which he made contact last year, and is at .100/.100 on 21 of them this year, with a .118 to .101 edge in xwOBA, but that’s not saying much, and adding in curves and sweepers to the two seasons tilts the balance towards 2022 (.111 to .102 in wOBA). That said, if I include those in the bottom outside corner of the zone (Gameday zone 9) against all breaking pitches, he’s improved from .192 to .326 in terms of slugging percentage, and from .155 to .228 in terms of wOBA. Baby steps there, bigger improvements elsewhere.

It’s debatable whether those improvements have carried over to the field, where by his own admission to Apstein, Castellanos the outfielder would let his mind wander from his last at-bat to “the status of the country, the economy, global relations.” The intensity of the postseason kept him locked in on the situation, and he has found a way to carry that over. “My focus was way higher just because the environment demanded it,” he told Apstein more recently. “And now that I’ve been able to feel that, I now can hold myself to that.”

That change hasn’t shown up on Castellanos’ outfield jumps (fifth percentile, down from seventh percentile), and while we should always take small-sample defensive data with a grain of salt, he’s at -1 OAA this year compared to -10 last year, though his -4 DRS and -6.2 UZR, compiled in about half as many innings, actually project to be as bad or worse. Still, his 1.3 WAR already represents a 2.1-win swing relative to last year, and it’s clear that he’s in a much better place mentally. He may not be able to offer the Phillies quite as much geopolitical expertise, but his rejuvenated bat more than makes up for it.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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10 months ago

Castellanos is a streaky player because he has often relied more on running high BABIPs than hitting lots of balls over the fence or walking a lot. In Detroit, he didn’t hit many homers at all, and the stadium probably wasn’t that good for his batted ball profile, because he really underperformed his xwOBA most of the time there; when he was successful, it came from him running a sky-high OBP (like in 2018) than from a lot of homers.

When he left the Tigers and went to the Cubs and the Reds, the hope was that he had turned the corner. He still wasn’t walking but he was hitting far, far more home runs. But the BABIP still contributed to pretty big swings in his overall value (2020 vs 2021, for example).

With the Phillies, he’s back to the type of player he was in Detroit. This is interesting because I thought for sure the problem was the stadium when he was playing for the Tigers but the Phillies’ park is a whole lot more like the Reds’ than the Tigers’. Right now he’s running an astronomical .399 BABIP and is only on pace for something like 17 homers, which is still somehow higher than the mere 13 he hit last year.

10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I guess I’m not fully understanding your point. It’s a BABIP driven profile for sure, but higher than average BABIP is his skill as a hitter, it’s .334 on his career (understanding that current .399 is an outlier, while his previous high of .361 is more a best case outcome).

His success is driven almost entirely by 3 things:
-Making ‘enough’ contact
-Barreling the ball (upper tier on his career)
-Lifting the ball more than average

If he’s not doing these things he’s going to struggle because he:
-Makes a below average amount of contact
-Isn’t patient
-Has average exit velos

We saw him struggle due to too little contact in ’15, ’16, and ’20 and a lack of barrels in ’22.

As for his stadium specific performances, I agree with you and think the Tigers’ stadium repressed some of his HR power and turned them into doubles (which he hit quite a lot of). We saw him break 30 HRs for the first time in Cincy which also tracks with the theory.

As to why we aren’t seeing the same HR results in Philly, well his average launch angle being down 3 degrees from his career average is probably doing the heavy lifting there with a career high groundball rate.

I do also think more so than any other year, that he’s been lucky this year. The barrels are there but too many GBs and teetering on not enough contact. When that BABIP comes down closer to his career number the Phillies had better hope he’s gotten back to lifting the ball in line with his career averages.